It was a chilly night, fitting for a change of pace, when the Choral Arts Society of Washington performed Hector Berlioz: Requiem, Op. 5 Grande Messe des Morts to a buoyant crowd at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall. First, the company opened to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Wir setzen uns mit Tranen nieder,” which was a soft classical piece that felt peaceful and a great way to warm up amidst lowering temperatures.
Later on, the company performed “Take Him, Earth,” a wonderful short piece (only lasting about 12 minutes), composed by Steven Stucky. A more contemporary composition was the perfect start for the night. The piece showcased the amazing instrument that a large chorus can make, amplified by the acoustics of The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. The piece was a moving and beautiful ode to life, and last night the performance of it was dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy.
After the intermission, Conductor Scott Tucker welcomed the audience back. By the set up, it looked like we were all about to be treated to a grand experience, with brass sections stationed throughout the Concert Hall, up on both sides of the balconies and in the back of the Concert Hall, where Dustin Lucas, the tenor vocalist was also stationed at the top of the back of the Concert Hall, making for a kind of surround sound experience. Tucker joked around to the audience members sitting near the brass sections “I’m sorry for you,” which made for a nice laugh. He also asked around for people who had heard the piece performed before, a lot of first-timers in the audience, as last night was the first time in almost 15 years that that a live performance of Berlioz’s “Requiem, Op. 5” took place; a rare treat, indeed.
The piece sounded large and impressive, the dozens of singers stationed in choral risers, all dressed in black sang all ten movements with such precision it was like being transported into the grandeur intended by Berlioz. The epic choral expressions of loss and death were present throughout the performance, but especially in the first five movements. The solemnity of the night was only paralleled by the massive scale of the sounds. It was definitely a workout for Conductor Scott Tucker, who seemed like he grew five inches taller in the very active performance conducting in all corners of the Concert Hall.
A stand-out of the night was the performance of the sixth movement, “Lacrimosa,” which speaks to the mourning of those loss in battle and otherwise in life as well. It is an epic movement that mimics the many heights and lows of the emotions associated with loss. “Lacrimosa” was an epic movement that soared and reverberated through each corner of the Concert Hall. The environment turned positive as Berlioz picks it back up in the next movement, “Offertoire,” which was one of the best demonstrations of the elegant and melodic but powerful choir, who more than rose to the challenge.
The magnificent last three movements, presented as fugues, demonstrated why the non-traditional set-up made sense for the musicians taking advantage of the entire Concert Hall. When it came time for tenor Dustin Lucas to make his solo appearance, the crowd turned back and a single light illuminated his masterful performance. The night made for a perfect kick-off to the holiday season, with a performance that will not soon be forgotten. As I was wlaking out of the Concert Hall, I overheard a man who stated “Most satisfying performance I’ve seen in 24 years!” It was certainly an end that saw a room full of smiles, as it was a delightful and powerful performance, not an easy balance.
Running time: 2 hours and ten minutes, including intermission.
The Choral Arts Society of Washington presents Berlioz: Requiem, Op. 5 was performed ON Sunday, November 20, 2016, at 5 PM in the Concert Hall at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For upcoming events of the Choral Arts Society, go to their website.
Listen to Artistic Director Scott Tucker talk about conducting the ‘Berlioz Requiem’ on NPR.